Really, What Are We Witnessing?

I feel like my last post on The Witness involved a fair bit of bloviation about the weirdness of the title (to be fair, it was a post on the subject of titles) and only a little discussion of the game itself, so this post is going to try to remedy that to an extent.

In case you’ve not actually heard anything about The Witness‘s core gameplay, it works like this.  You play as your typical AFGNCAAP who has free run of an abandoned island littered with statues of people and little screens that show a variety of line drawing puzzles.  The core mechanic of these line drawing puzzles can best be described as navigating a maze where you can’t immediately see the boundaries, and different areas of the island feature puzzles that gradually educate you on the implicit rules that dictate how to solve each challenge.  By the time you reach the game’s final area, you’ll find that you’ve mastered about eight different puzzle mechanics that get combined and remixed to present puzzles that don’t necessarily grow in complexity (there were a handful of puzzles that Rachael and I genuinely struggled with, mostly because they were tied to unique environmental features that didn’t repeat very often) but which do feel continuously novel.  The end result is a game experience that doesn’t really scale in difficulty, and is actually designed with the intention of allowing the player to advance based on their own mastery of game mechanics rather than the artificial easing of difficulty that things like in-game experience levels tend to do.

I have to admit that this experience of progress based on player skill left me feeling ambivalent.  As an able-bodied gamer with a relatively sharp mind and decades of muscle memory helping me intuit how contemporary games work, I felt a real sense of satisfaction every time I worked out a particularly difficult puzzle.  The moment when I could visualize a solution before drawing it on the grid was always immensely satisfying, and success never felt cheap or like an inevitable result of putting in the necessary grind time.  On the other hand, one thing that I try to note and appreciate about games is their accessibility.  I became particularly aware of The Witness‘s inaccessibility a couple days after starting it when I mentioned it to some of my students with whom I discuss video games, and they dismissed it out of hand as a stupid game.  Though we didn’t revisit it, the impression they left me with was that The Witness, as a slow paced puzzle game, played against their strengths.  Inferring logical rules isn’t a strong suit for many of my students (teaching them explicit mathematical principles is a constant struggle), and The Witness‘s mode of instruction is entirely based on inference.

Now, there’s certainly something to be said about differences in taste and establishing who the target audience of a particular creative work is supposed to be.  I imagine that in conceiving The Witness, Jonathan Blow was not trying to capture the average teenage demographic, which is fine.  From a narrative perspective, his work tends to be highly opaque in a way that discourages people who prefer explicitly defined, Western style stories (I confess that I generally find the way Blow presents his themes to be more than a little pretentious; it’s his game design that draws most of my admiration), and you can’t reasonably expect any artist to make creative work that runs counter to what it is they want to express.  My main issue here is with regards to the accessibility of a game’s mechanics.  Can a person with limited mobility or fine motor control manipulate an interface that allows them to experience a game?  Does the core mechanic of the game rely on a player having a certain inherent cognitive strength, like the visual-spacial logic puzzles of The Witness do?  In the case of mechanics contributing to a game’s thematic elements, where’s a reasonable line to draw between accessibility and artistic vision?  How does the introduction of commercial factors influence these sorts of decisions?  It all gets really complicated really fast, and I’m not sure there are any particularly clear answers.

At any rate, while there are a lot of complicated questions to go along with a discussion of The Witness‘s mechanics, I feel like the narrative themes are a little more straightforward.  The environmental nature of many of the puzzle solutions and the thematically connected recordings strewn around the island that discuss various topics related to the interconnectedness of the individual with their environment point towards a distinct overarching theme.  It’s hard to forget the intentionality behind every aspect of the island with all the little touches that emerge suddenly with all the shifts in perspective that the game relies on (discovery of so many secrets require the player assiduously playing with perspective in every part of the environment).  Even though it looks like a natural environment, you always suspect that even within the world of the game everything about the island was deliberately designed (the final area, located inside the island’s central mountain, confirms this suspicion with a series of workshops filled with models and concept art for other locations on the island).  As for the larger purpose of all these thematic linkages, I feel more or less at a loss.  I can see the optimism inherent in a philosophical outlook that emphasizes universal interconnection, but the game’s culmination left me feeling largely unmoved by its meditation.  It’s all incredibly clever, and if I were more inclined to ponder great universal mysteries and the emergence of complexity from simplicity, then I might find it a satisfying pastime.  As it is, my final feelings about The Witness are that I really enjoyed the puzzles, and I’m grateful most of the thematic stuff was left to the side.

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